In Praise of The Fast Show
- May 19, 2023
- Alexander Larman
- Themes: Comedy
The creators of The Fast Show supercharged the idea of the sketch show.
A few years ago, I was watching the much-praised Hilary Mantel adaptation Wolf Hall on TV, and was unable to work out why I was unable to take it seriously. There was Mark Rylance, sombre and reserved as Thomas Cromwell, and ably supported by Damian Lewis’s ambitious, flawed Henry VIII. The mise-en-scène, dialogue and cinematography were all perfect. But something about the dynamic between the two men seemed both familiar and somehow silly. I was trying to puzzle it out until I reached my ‘Eureka’ moment in the second episode, in a scene in which Henry was attempting to influence Cromwell as the two sat on a bench; ‘Oh God’, I shouted aloud, ‘It’s Ralph and Ted from The Fast Show.’
The cultural impact of one of the nineties’ best-loved British comedy series has manifested itself in numerous different ways since it first aired on BBC2 in 1994. Perhaps its best-known aficionado is the actor Johnny Depp, who has not only ensured that the show’s star Paul Whitehouse has been a regular colleague of his (describing him as ‘the greatest actor in the world’) but said, of his brief cameo in the 2000 farewell special, ‘It was absolutely one of my proudest achievements. No question.’ Granted, Depp’s journey from Hollywood megastar to reputational pariah could not have been anticipated by Whitehouse and his co-writer and co-star Charlie Higson, but it says a great deal for the show that it not only attracted a guest star of his calibre, but continues to be a much-beloved and cited series that ensured that its hugely talented cast have all had successful careers over the past three decades.
Yet its genesis and subsequent reception are as unorthodox as many of the show’s brave (and usually successful) artistic decisions. Whitehouse and Higson were, on paper, an odd match; the former was a former plasterer from a working-class Welsh family and the latter was the privately educated member of the band The Higsons. Yet the two men’s successful partnership was cemented in the comedy boom of the eighties and early nineties, as they worked with the likes of Fry and Laurie and Reeves and Mortimer, as well as Harry Enfield.
His own show, Harry Enfield & Chums, co-starred Whitehouse and was clearly a forerunner of The Fast Show in its rapid-fire format, in which characters would appear for a matter of a few minutes, usually deliver a catchphrase, and then vanish. Higson and Whitehouse both served as writers on Harry Enfield & Chums, and came to the attention of the comedy producer Geoffrey Perkins, who, seeing the Enfield show’s highlights cut together in a rapid-fire fashion that owed much to the then-prevalent MTV format, suggested that they produce their own comedy series. This would, essentially, supercharge the idea of the sketch show, reducing its component parts to a single catchphrase that could be delivered by a character in a few seconds before the next joke arrived. It was a gamble – what if the jokes never landed? – but it was undeniably one backed up by impressive pedigree.
Higson and Whitehouse assembled a cast that included many of Britain’s best comic actors, such as Arabella Weir, Simon Day, Mark Williams and the much-missed Caroline Aherne, and collaborated with writers such as Father Ted creators Graham Linehan (before the days of controversy) and Arthur Mathews and Reeves and Mortimer. Although Perkins’s suggestion of the working title The Fast Show was thought to be too on-the-nose, nobody could think of a superior one, and so it stuck. The first episode was broadcast on 27 September 1994, and the industry watched with interest to see what would happen. Would it be quick and nimble, or dead on arrival?
The cultural context in which it arrived was an uncertain one. The previous week, Friends had premiered in the United States, and had immediately established itself as a cultural phenomenon. More worldly and sophisticated viewers had Seinfeld and Frasier, and younger multicultural audiences enjoyed the antics of Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Yet sketch shows had not enjoyed the same international popularity that scripted half-hour comedy did; the likes of The Ben Stiller Show and Jim Carrey’s In Living Color had been successful in America, but had not reached British audiences, and, Enfield’s show aside, the last universally popular and much-quoted sketch series had been Monty Python. Therefore, its success was by no means assured, which makes the ease (and speed) with which it won public acclaim all the more impressive.
With the benefit of hindsight, the genius of The Fast Show is twofold. Perkins’s belief that, even in a pre-social media and internet age, audiences’ attention spans were shortening was correct; the series’ ability to fire off jokes and catchphrases and to create indelible characters in moment is obvious even from the first episode. And secondly, Higson and Whitehouse’s trust in their ensemble was ably repaid, whether it was casting those who were primarily known as character comedians, such as Day, or actors such as Williams who approached the show with the clarity and seriousness with which they might have played farce on stage at the National. It proved, immediately, that if you have that alchemic combination of superb performers, brilliant material and an innovative format, that not only do you have the most influential sketch series since Monty Python, but you can even transcend it, practically creating a new genre in the process.
Obviously, everyone will have their favourites. In retrospect, some of the running jokes were doomed to failure; the figure of the smarmy news reporter, forever saying ‘Hi, I’m Ed Winchester’ never finds its punchline, and was wisely ditched before the show ran its course, and there will be those who find the Europudding spoof television Chanel 9 (‘Scorchio!’) more amusing than I do. Yet set against this are the undeniable hits, whether it’s Higson’s hideously irritating office joker Colin Hunt, Whitehouse’s fading variety star Arthur Atkinson (who, in one particular highlight, is prevailed upon to act in Beckett) or John Thomson’s Jools Holland-esque Louis Balfour, presenter of the dire Jazz Club and prevailed upon to describe all the various hopeless acts on his show as ‘Nice!’
The show has proved influential in ways that its creators could barely have imagined. Simon Day’s ‘tough, uncompromising’ thespian John Actor, pressed into a variety of increasingly unsuitable roles – not least a vet in All Monkfish Great and Small – resembles endless BBC and ITV stars who are press-ganged into absurd parts, such as Martin Shaw’s inexplicably popular Judge John Deed, forever intervening in the cases that he nominally tries. It is hard not to watch Whitehouse’s character ‘Brilliant Kid’, forever pronouncing that everything he sees is peerless, and not think of the uncannily giddy enthusiasm that BBC presenters seem compelled to come up with on all occasions, and the innuendo-laden ‘Suits You, Sir’ sketches – themselves a clear homage to John Inman and Are You Being Served – laid the groundwork for any number of camp comedians to thrust themselves forward (ooh, matron), including Graham Norton and Alan Carr.
Yet what I remember most about The Fast Show are not the jokes, surprisingly enough, but the poignancy. The relationship between Ralph and Ted – the sexually repressed landowner and the laconic Irish gamekeeper – is one played virtually straight by both Higson and Whitehouse, and far funnier as a result, yet when the emotional pay-off finally arrives, it’s surprisingly heartbreaking. And the most unexpected tearjerking moment of all comes with Whitehouse’s drunken QC Sir Rowley Birkin, who, in his final appearance, tells the story of a lost love with perfectly timed emotion. When he delivers his recurring catchphrase – ‘I’m afraid I was very drunk’ – to devastating effect, the clearly surprised studio audience pause before breaking out in rapturous applause; proof, if it were needed, that laughter and pathos can be the most natural of bedfellows.
It was this combination, manifesting itself in unexpected and wholly successful ways, that marked out The Fast Show from its more ephemeral peers and imitations, and has ensured its longevity and classic status. It remains, in its own fitting description, ‘brilliant’.